Stereoscopic pair of photographs taken by Underwood & Underwood in c.1900 of seated statues of Buddha at the Kyaik Pun Pagoda in Pegu (Bago), Burma (Myanmar).
Then Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, stood to one side. As she was standing there she said to him: “It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief such that, having heard the Dhamma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute.”
I have been intrigued with how Westerners would take up a spiritual life as a contemplative. If Western Buddhism is primarily a lay-oriented practice, is it possible to live a significant contemplative life as a lay practitioner, and if so, what would that look like? Is there space in this practice for what I would consider an urban contemplative?
Although I had reflected upon renunciation as a necessary part of a spiritual practice, until the interviews I didn’t grasp just how important renunciation is to a contemplative life. I thought any type of contemplative life was primarily about practice and one’s commitment to practice.
An urban hermit is not an identity but a felt-sense of being in the world. A “felt-sense” is by definition both fluid and guided by one or more specific principles or questions. A case can be made that we all have a felt-sense of struggling to be at peace within ourselves regardless of the many ways in which our conditions and circumstances may differ. For many, the idea of solitude, of being alone for a short or long period of time, may be an appealing way to disengage from pressures that create and define the struggle to be at peace with ourselves in the first place.
What are modern hermits setting out to do? “Basically, nothing,” ... “Nothing unusual, that is. Hermits live ordinary lives but with an extraordinary motivation.”